Where Have All the Restaurants in Dover, VT Gone?
Updated: May 14, 2018
Philip Gilpin, Jr. (editor)
Something is happening in the Mount Snow Valley (aka, Dover & Wilmington) - a lot of places are closing. While it's a beautiful place to live year round, something seems to have stalled out in the normal cycle of business turnover. The recent list of restaurant closures includes:
First Wok Chinese
Nonna's Italian at the Sawmill Farm
Mangia e Beve
Old Red Mill
As if losing these 400+ seats weren't enough The Last Chair is now up for sale with its operators getting out of dodge after this winter season, and the owner of the Dover Forge said at recent town meeting that they've never made a profit. On the flip side, the only new places to open recently are Scalia's and the Taqueria in Wilmington.
The nearly $2 billion dollars of combined real estate value in these two towns presents something of a paradox since high property values are often seen as a sign of economic development success, yet most of the area's inns are up for sale, its restaurants are closing faster than new ones are opening, and its once famous youthful vitality has faded.
With so much epic natural beauty and relaxing outdoor activities available in the Valley year round like hiking Haystack Mountain, swimming in Lake Whitingham, or golfing at Mount Snow, surely the Valley must be able to attract a new generation of business owners and residents? Well, regardless of the amazing quality of life amenities the Valley offers, the economic reality is that it is not happening at the rate it should be.
In short, market forces are indicating that the region's commercial properties are not yet inexpensive enough to convince new investors that a profit can be made if they step in and restore them to full operation. Listings on the Hermitage Deerfield Valley Real Estate website show a range of commercial properties available with prices ranging from the tens of thousands to the millions - some newly on the market, others that have been waiting years for a buyer. Recently, there was an auction held for the buildings at the main intersection of Route 9 & Route 100 in Wilmington (one of the busiest traffic intersections in all of Southern Vermont) and the reserve wasn't met.
So what's going on?
Part one of this in-depth series takes a look a few of the overall themes causing this mystery.
1) FOOD COSTS HAVE GONE UP
The valley is a remote area for commercial enterprises so almost all the restaurants order their raw ingredients from the same two delivery companies: Sysco and PFG. Notable exceptions to this are (1) The Tavern who grows some of their vegetables and fruits in their own backyard, ships in fresh seafood from Maine, and gets local VT raised poultry whenever possible, and (2) the Dover Forge that slow cooks their BBQ in their custom made smoker.
Regardless of which delivery truck is delivering the food, however, the simple fact is that the delivery companies are charging restaurants more and cutting their profit margins. In order to survive without raising their prices, they would need to increase their volume by over 20%. But...
2) WINTER VISITORS DON'T CARRY IT ANYMORE
Yes, this area is historically a seasonal winter economy. But that means the winter has to hold up to its billing and generate enough revenue to carry the rest of the year. We've all heard the stories about the booming days of the 70s, 80s and 90s in the valley. Packed crowds standing 5 deep at every bar around town until 2am; restaurants filled with reservations weeks in advance; local inns booked up months ahead at full rate. That's just not how it is in 2018.
Barely no one is out after 10pm these days. Last Saturday night at 11pm there were about 50 people out IN TOTAL at all off-mountain bars in the valley. Local inns have rooms open on Saturday nights in the winter, something that is unheard of 10 years ago. Yes, there may have been 10,000 people on Mount Snow during the day - but when the bars are empty at 10pm and the rooms are empty all night it doesn't matter how many lift tickets were sold.
Everyone now tries to squeeze in dinner between 6:30-8:00pm leaving the valley's restaurants with a couple of hours to make a week's worth of revenue. It's an impossible task to achieve without raising prices on consumers to the point that they might not go out.
And there are only two nights a week to make any money, Friday and Saturday. The rest of the days during the week are DEAD in the winter time. Some places might have 10 visitors a night on winter midweeks. Some won't even get that many. Most summer midweek days are busier than winter ones now.
One option left is to lower the quality of the food and cooking staff to the point where you just reheat basic frozen foods from the delivery trucks. But that leaves very little to get excited about...
3) NO NEW YOUNG OWNERS COMING IN
The true untold story of the valley is just how rapidly its culture has died off. The winter ski community used to be just that, a community. Now it's mostly small groups of friends sticking to themselves in their ski condos. There's no real cultural appeal to living in the area in the winter (summers are a different story with the popularity of the Adventure Challenge). But one of the side effects of this lack of culture is a lack of desire for young new business owners to move in and buy up the closing restaurants.
Today there are maybe two or three businesses in Dover owned by someone under 40 years old. Banks now require massive down payments on inns and restaurants and are less likely to extend mortgages to a younger generation that is saddled with student loan debt and barely getting by as is.
4) MOUNT SNOW & HAYSTACK AREN'T GOOD NEIGHBORS
Yes, winters are driven by visitors to Mount Snow but their new corporate strategy appears to be to keep them on the mountain at all costs at ever increasing prices ($100 a day just for a lift ticket?!). Local businesses can barely advertise on the mountain or reach their visitors and Mount Snow is expanding the base lodges to include more restaurant seats (open by 2022). They hire temporary seasonal or international workers at a staggering rate instead of creating enough good paying jobs to attract any significant volume of new young professionals to move to town year-round. And a couple of years ago they sent their head of Marketing down off the mountain to tell local businesses that they are not there to do anything other than sell lift tickets, and that they're certainly not there to promote or grow the local economy. Maybe those attitudes will change but nothing seems to have, yet.
As for the Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain.... well let's just say it's more often talked about as a real estate investment failure than as an actually functioning ski club contributing to the local economy. And it now costs $85,000 just to get in the door. This on-going saga is well documented in a litany of local press reports. The bottom line is that it certainly hasn't been the economic game-changer you would expect a $100,000,000 operation to be.
5) THE LOCALS ARE NO WHERE TO BE FOUND
But what about the people that actually live in the valley? According to the census in 2010, there are about 3,000+ people living in Dover and Wilmington year round. Surely they must go out to eat on a midweek night. Nope. One day last week saw about 100 people out at dinner TOTAL across all restaurants in both towns.
The largest reason for this is that most valley residents are getting older and living on fixed incomes. Others are just leaving. Add on general social challenges like the opioid crisis, low wages at the ski mountains, and an overall lack of culture or community and it's not a good situation.
So that's the bad news.
What's going to happen to all the places closing? They're likely to just sit there as other commercial properties in the area have been for years. Skiers will have to scramble for the few open tables remaining, on or off the mountain.
What's the good news?
The value of all real estate properties in Dover alone is over $1 Billion. Yes, $1,000,000,000+. Wilmington is another $800 million. These are two of the richest small towns in Vermont. So there is money floating around town via the second home owners from the city. The question is will they spend it outside of 6-8pm two nights a week, and invest in building a sense of culture in the valley before the collapse of the local business economy takes their home property values down with them?
Short of the winter visitors and/or second home owners making a conscious effort to get around town more frequently and stay out later, or a shift in financial strategy from the banks, it is likely you could see more places closing, making the valley simply an access road to and from the mountain without much else around it.
Many people who live in Vermont complain about the high tax rate being a driver of tough economic conditions for businesses and homeowners. We'll take an in-depth look at the reality of the tax situation in Part 2 of this real-life series...
PART TWO: CAN TAX REFORM FIX THE MOUNT SNOW VALLEY'S ECONOMIC MYSTERY?
PART THREE: WHY VERMONT'S MOUNT SNOW VALLEY SHOULD INVEST HEAVILY IN CULTURE
UPDATE: After this piece first published, the Maple Leaf Tavern contacted us to dispute our reference to them closing in the spring. While we stand by our accuracy, that segment has been removed from the initial piece out of courtesy.
2nd UPDATE: The Maple Leaf Tavern has in fact closed, as we originally reported they would come springtime.